Coursework update

Since late September, classes began for this semester in full earnest. After a year of disruption on my part, I finally got the chance to take a full load of courses which have kept me engaged, taught me something new, and exercised skills I haven’t used since studying for my O Levels in 1982.

I’ve focused on crafting for myself a rapid introduction to sustainability, climate change adaptation, mitigation, and reduction strategies, situating it in systems thinking, transitions, the built environment, context, culture, and design. I am now taking lectures which are beginning to saturate me with the modicum of understanding necessary to evaluate the landscape of the operating environment for an inclusive and circular approach to transformation of economic systems. While I’m primarily taught theory in the context of the developed world, there is ample support for contextualizing my contributions to knowledge from my datasets and fieldwork from the developing world.

I’ve finally arrived at the point where I can say that I am doctoral candidate exploring social design in the nordic tradition as a research practice. My focus is more on experimenting with methods and tools for the co-generation of novel knowledge that benefits all the participants concerned as stakeholders in a qualitative research project. Can I play around with the actual design research processes and make them the object of my social design experiments towards creating a better participation experience for marginalized and disadvantaged members of a society or community?

This is a recent refinement of my focus area, and is inspired by Tero Mustonen’s scholarly works documenting the social practices of subsistence fishing and hunting in rural Eastern Finland, taking the case of Selkie village and its environs. By approaching these traditional activities of rural Finns as social practices embodying traditional knowledge that can inform environmental justice, Mustonen is working on reallocation of maldistribution in a system of justice based on epistemological evidence. In more than a decade of work, his community has reincarnated the environment they depend on for their livelihoods as fishers and hunters; long poisoned by toxic runoffs from industrial activity on their lands.

I feel like I’ve lost a year of studies and have to make up for the gap. I hope to come back to regular writing once this semester and its obligations are over. I would have completed most of my necessary study credits by then and will be reserving my time for writing.

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Revisiting Design Thinking: Pondering the process and principles

I have not written on design thinking in more than a decade. The era when I’d be cited in Fast Company or Rita Sue Siegel’s handbook on Industrial Design careers is long gone. Which one of these definitions should I use going forward?

“Design thinking in business takes this problem solving aspect one step further [than human centered design]. Now the tools and techniques from the field of design such as ethnographic research, rapid prototyping and conceptual brainstorming integrate with the pragmatic business frameworks of strategy, analysis and metrics to create and provide roadmaps for business [service, policy, organization] innovation and competitive advantage. In this context, design has evolved away from traditional form giving to becoming an integral part of corporate strategy.” Niti Bhan

And ye olde “Design vs Design Thinking” from August 2005:

The biggest change in the last 15 years has been the shift in design’s purpose, away from commercial objectives towards societal challenges. Design thinking (DT) in business settings and the impetus to elevate design from a line activity in the marketing or engineering department to the boardroom provides evidence of this commercial legacy. As the discipline of design is challenged by more complex multifarious expectations, these underlying assumptions still influence the more popular processes and practices. What might have originally been a fun, creative activity for staid suits in the boardroom may not have the robustness to accommodate the necessary diversity of  knowledge systems, nor incorporate the necessary preparation in advance of project design. Another oft-quoted critique is DT’s propensity to enter into any kind of challenge without necessarily doing the homework required for contextual understanding of the operating environment or the subject matter.

Referencing the previous post exploring transdisciplinarity in design, this post can be said to be the deep questioning required to evaluate whether design thinking is fit for purpose in its most commonly known approaches i.e. design processes and practices, as understood by scholars, practitioners, and researchers from other disciplines. I will use Gonera and Pabst’s 2019 paper for referencing DT’s processes and practices as the authors are not from a design background yet have incorporated elements of design thinking into their work, offering a transdisciplinary perspective on things we might take for granted. They introduce design thinking (DT) as given below:

DT in an innovation management context can be described as a human-centered approach to problem-solving, creativity and innovation combining what is technologically feasible, with what is desirable and economically viable (Brown, 2008, Brown & Katz, 2011, Verganti, 2008, Beckman & Barry, 2007, Liedtka, 2015, Carlgren, Rauth & Elmquist, 2016b). ~ Gonera and Pabst (2019)

Simply taking the concept of the overlap between feasibility, viability, and desirability as a place to begin evaluation, one can see that the popular Venn Diagram commonly used to communicate the innovation sweetspot is floating in mid-air without the “Universe” to contextualize and ground the concepts in the Venn Diagram. And, this lack of context leads to assumptions on the operating environment and the landscape within which technological feasibility, economic viability and solution desirability must be evaluated.

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Framing Transdisciplinarity from the Perspective of Human Centered Design

In a previous post, I had introduced the concept of transdisciplinarity as a means to conceptualize the space I inhabit with my research and work through the use of Czarniawska’s joy at the discovery of anthropology and its methods for understanding humans in the context of organizational studies (Czarniawska, 2008). Today, I would like to explore whether what I do* with the informal economic systems that I study as a complex, adaptive, human dominated yet emergent socio-technical-ecological system (STES) in the east African context can be said to be an inherently transdisciplinary activity albeit informed and inspired by the methods and tools of human centered and participatory approaches to project and intervention design. It has been noted for long enough (Vaughan, 2017) that design is expanding its boundaries of scope and purpose, and, that simultaneously, the complexity and context of design challenges are themselves expanding the boundaries of knowledge and expertise required for the efficacious implementation of such projects.

I will use two cases to explore and discuss this situation analysis of a strand of emergent design practice in order to contextualize elements of their transdisciplinarity in the context of the literature exploring the role of design’s skills, capacities, tools and methods, as well as the ubiquitious thinking tools, not to mention sticky notes, that characterize the thinking that occurs at various stages of the design process (see Kolko, 2010). It is my hypothesis that we will discover that it is the thinking tools of design practice (including the methods) that are the most important contribution that design can make to increasingly complex and transdisciplinary design challenges, while the process allows space for divergence and convergence of conceptualization as well as room for exploration and experimentation in a manner rarely acknowledged or deliberately facilitated in other disciplines, particularly in the sciences and in business.

As my blog post dated April 2006 – 15 years ago – shows, business and management had rarely if never accommodated the time for collaborative sensemaking (aka what designers do together with a sticky note) until the 2006 campaign to launch design thinking in collaboration with Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek had succeeded in diffusing these new methods and tools for creative approaches to problem discovery and problem solving in the guise of “design thinking”. Today we take it for granted that whiteboards and post-it notes are de rigeur in any kind of meeting, regardless of the discipline, when we as practitioners enter a project space (see Valtonen, 2020).

Transdisciplinarity and Design

Gonera and Pabst (2019) introduce the context in which I will speak and reflect. The focus of their research is on the use of design thinking (DT) as facilitation tool to improve transdisciplinary collaboration, user-focus, and innovation outcome in publicly funded transdisciplinary industry-academia research and innovation consortia (Gonera and Pabst, 2019). When I first introduced DT as a facilitation tool in a publicly funded transdisciplinary project, it was for the Dutch government, specifically the food security department of the Ministry of Economy and their collaboration partners in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One could say this was a similar context to Gonera and Pabst (2019) but the emphasis of my research is on the use of design thinking as facilitation tool for uncovering and framing design challenges which have traditionally been called “wicked problems”, most famously by Rittel and Webber (1973).

That is, the focus of our work has been to use the full capacities of design’s methods, tools, and skills to better design projects and programmes, and conceivably could include the cases of the RICs used by Gonera and Pabst (2019) as the objects of our design approach. For instance, we introduce the use of design’s methods and tools as aids to thinking when considering the design of public-private partnerships (PPPs) for sustainable agricultural value chains (Bhan and Doorneweert, 2013). It is our belief, documented in an internal report to the relevant Ministerial departments in the Hague, that the initial conceptualization of funding calls for such multi-stakeholder projects, which are transdisciplinary by the nature of the call, can make or break the success of the funding call and its subsequent portfolio of projects. That is, we proposed a more designerly approach to the design of such programmes at an earlier stage than the actual technical response to the funding call, and applied the basic human centered design process as the means to facilitate problem discovery at the inception phase, within the government departments planning their funding programming and resource allocations prior to the call. It was made clear to our government partners that such an approach would improve – in the words of Gonera and Pabst (2019) – ” transdisciplinary collaboration, user-focus, and innovation outcome”.

It was also clear that a refresh of the mental models of the stakeholders involved was required for improvements in design of such programmes and their output of a portfolio of funded projects that aligned with policy goals for coherent and impactful outcomes. If indeed the donor government wanted to see more agile and responsive PPPs with greater socio-economic impacts among the target audience of such projects, then it was their responsibility to provide the foundation of human-centered transdisciplinary research that was contemporary and relevant to their policy goals as opposed to the long established tradition of relying on the third parties applying for funding to define user needs.

That is, the design process is flexible enough to provide the phases required for any level and scale of addressing problem discovery, and its flexibility can be increased internal to the discipline by dropping subdisciplinary labels that allow for cross-pollination of tools from one subdiscipline to be applied in wholly different contexts and outputs under the branding umbrella of ‘design’. At the moment, the legacy of design’s entrance as its own discipline and research traditions (see Cross, 1982) may be hampering its own trans-sub-discplinarity as a means to expand its capacities and tools as its applications expand in purpose, scope, and complexity. Dorst (2018) effectively summarizes this challenge in his own words so:

Confronted with the new complex networked reality we have created for ourselves, we struggle to step back and create new approaches: our disciplinary and organizational structures hold us back from doing so. (Dorst, 2018)

Transdisciplinarity for Contemporary Design Practice

Knapp and her colleagues articulate the massive changes under way, at a global systems level, and on a planetary scale, that provide – at once – the backdrop against which design is changing and expanding, as well as the context of the operating environment within which it must act (Knapp, Reid, Fernández-Giménez, Klein, & Galvin, 2019). As they synthesize in their abstract, with emphasis added:

This review offers insights into the interaction between science and practice, including the importance of social processes and recognition of different ways of knowing, as well as how to conduct collaborative approaches on a variety of scales and think about how to generalize findings. (Knapp et al. 2019)

Complex sustainability problems are undeniably the focus for a whole of society approach for innovative responses on the scale required for the rapid transition of global systems in response to challenges such as climate change. And, it is when design brings down its subdisciplinary boundaries that it can offer the expanded capacities required from it if it is indeed to craft a novel role for itself even as it undergoes changes in response to what is now being demanded from it (for eg. Valtonen, 2020). One could say that ‘design thinking”s popularity has created additional pressure on demands for design to perform, as Lauren Vaughan does in her introduction to doctoral research in design practice (Vaughan, 2017).

As Valtonen says, the pandemic has raised its own challenges implying an even “greater need for us to be able to address uncertainty and align ourselves with even more radical transformations” (Valtonen, 2020), and, I suspect, will give rise to more transdisciplinary formulations of design, as well as less subdisciplinary boundaries for methodology and tools. Blomberg and Karasti (2012) already make the case for ethnography’s role in the participatory design process, particularly in the Scandinavian tradition (Gregory, 2003), as a means to inform the design of the design project itself. The case of the remote resilience project introducing custom designed tools for planning and sensemaking for informal economic systems can be used as an exemplar of the necessary transformation of design, its role, the role of the designers and researchers, and the crossing of disciplinary boundaries whilst leveraging the capacity of design’s thinking tools and methods to facilitate the optimal outcome. Here, the focus of research is the project’s design rather than the design outcome of the project, and a diagram is used to identify the timeline of design research inputs, the conventional subdisciplinary sources of methods and tools, and the transdisciplinary inputs.

As Dorst says, problems will have to be reframed in order for the necessary transdisciplinarity to take root within what should still be called design projects, or more literally designer projects, if it is to continue to act as glue (Kelley and VanPatter, 2005). Each wicked problem – a factor mentioned by all the design scholars’ cited as a reason for the increasing transdisciplinary nature of designer’s projects or the projects in which designers are invited to the table to provide their contribution – is by nature of its own definition (Rittel and Webber, 1973) unique, complex, and can rarely be informed by what worked in the past (Dorst, 2018).

It is here that one can begin by reframing the added complexity to design challenges in the immediate post-pandemic systemic shock era as an opportunity for design to deeply question the underlying values that shape outcomes, however subtly, that the discipline may have implicitly and tacitly integrated due to its legacy and roots in facilitating successful commercial outcomes. One cannot design for the greater good of non-human stakeholders, for instance, without questioning some of the definitions of good design such as that which consumers’ value or growing sales figures as a metric of successful design, which, if left tacit, may inadvertently raise barriers to the successful outcome of non-commercial applications of design’s capacities and skills. Dorst (2018) explores these challenges and barriers, and acknowledges the limitations of established academic practice. Addressing this may also require crossing subdisciplines in addition to disciplines in order to craft design projects that utilize the most relevant and appropriate methods and tools for the problem at hand.



Bhan, N., & Doorneweert, B. (2013, December). Using the methods designers use as aids to thinking the case of public-private partnerships in sustainable agricultural value chain development. In 2013 IEEE Tsinghua International Design Management Symposium (pp. 277-283). IEEE.

Blomberg, D. J., & Karasti, H. (2012). Ethnography: Positioning ethnography within participatory design. In Routledge international handbook of participatory design (pp. 106-136). Routledge.

Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design studies, 3(4), 221-227.

Czarniawska, B. (2008). Organizing: how to study it and how to write about it. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal.

Dorst, K. (2018). Mixing Practices to Create Transdisciplinary Innovation: a design-based approach. Technology Innovation Management Review.

Gonera, A., & Pabst, R. (2019). The use of design thinking in transdisciplinary research and innovation consortia: challenges, enablers, and benefits. Journal of Innovation Management, 7(3), 96-122.

Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74

Knapp, C. N., Reid, R. S., Fernández-Giménez, M. E., Klein, J. A., & Galvin, K. A. (2019). Placing transdisciplinarity in context: A review of approaches to connect scholars, society and action. Sustainability, 11(18), 4899.

Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design issues, 26(1), 15-28.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Valtonen, A. (2020). Approaching Change with and in Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 6(4), 505-529.

Vaughan, L., ed (2017) Practice –Based Design Research. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

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This is my song

It is too early to say whether the journey I began in March to look for my word song and the magic I’d thought I’d found when I read the Kalevala has categorically been a success. I am not yet settled into the word song I’ve been hearing in my mind’s eye. I had already noticed the sense that there was a rhythm in the keyboard; something I hadn’t heard, even faintly, for a decade or so. Now I wonder if the year of the pandemic, which was working on pandemic time, so it took 18 months or more, had atrophied the basic social skills and left one feeling lost without people against which to fit oneself into one’s mental model of an ecosystem – a hyper-local and interdependent web of value exchange that comprises one’s daily life circle of human contact/s. It took the return of social interaction to complete the missing part of my search for my word song.


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Disrupting oneself

Disrupting oneself deliberately can often be the hardest thing to do. One takes a cold, hard look at where one is at and says, this needs to change. It takes courage.

And, a willingness to let go of comfortable routines and established achievements. When you are at the top of your game, it can be hard to not continue fighting for the status quo of success.

Success can also mean becoming redundant. Your investments of energy and efforts are not required anymore. You have transformed your own operating environment. It is now time to let go.


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On Reflection

The new semester’s classes start tomorrow. My first reading assignment has already landed metaphorically on my desk. The two articles to be read are on reflection, reflective writing, and what does this mean in practice. I was intimidated by them – did I know how to reflect in writing? would I be able to grasp these new concepts? So, I was moved to come here and ponder out loud whether this what I do is the same as what is expected?

I’d been meaning to write but I’ve been writing. And I began September with an intensive short course on 3D printing and the circular economy – it deserves its own post which it shall receive in due time. Coming to the blog felt like an indulgence, dissipating the energy of thinking and writing for pure pleasure rather than husbanding it for the conference paper I’m coauthoring.

I’ve taken on a full course load this semester to make up for the last year’s disruptions. I think I’ll come here more often, if only as a way to play and keep my sanity, rather than staying away. I will have to find a way to distribute my time spent on thinking and writing to allow for time to play as well as work. I can reflect on what I’m learning. There is a new category now, under Education, called Reflections.

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A change of perspective and a whole new set of metaphors (Czarniawska, 2008)

“…each excursion into another field of knowledge brings with it things that were embedded in a different type of soil, and it is inevitable that particles of that soil are still clinging to the roots, practically invisible to the new owner. Additionally, a re-embedding into the new soil could produce deviations and hybrids that are sometimes superior to the original, and sometimes not” ~ Barbara Czarniawska, 2008, Organizing: how to study it and how to write about it

Let me sing you a song of Kaleva’s magic. Czarniawska’s joy of discovering a way to ground her work with an approach and a methodology that fit her purpose and her needs, shines through clearly in her writing. In her introduction to the paper linked above, she says:

Let there be no doubt about one thing: to me, the emergence of a cultural paradigm in organization studies was the best thing that happened in my nearly 40-year research career. Anthropology brought with it a dramatic change of perspective and a whole new set of metaphors, as well as a legitimacy to field methods that had barely been acknowledged in organization studies. (Czarniawska, 2008)

This is exactly how I felt, not only in response to her words, written by her in her paper about her own experience, but the spark of reflection that these words evoked in me. I have already documented here the ‘dramatic change of perspective and a whole new set of metaphors’ that changing my own subdisciplinary methodology and approach from the expert-led mindset of a user centered designer and researcher to that of the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design approaches to cocreation had brought about. And, the wrenching change of perspective required of me to shift to the role of novice scholar after three decades of experienced professional practice.

Now, as I sit here and ponder the implications of these words, I’m moved to reflect on my own ‘discipline’ – something that had never mattered in practice, as I’ve simply called it a ‘holistic’ approach – but is an important matter of concern in academia, where one’s situatedness in the body of scholarship is de rigeur. This is not a case of what self composed job title I give myself as a business owner, but of the strands of knowledge which inform my thinking and my writing and thus my work.

It is the art of combining several sciences in one person. A transdisciplinary is a scientist trained in various academic disciplines. This person merged all his knowledge into one thick wire. That united knowledge wire is used to solve problems that include many problems. Pablo Tigani

If asked, I cannot disentangle the legacy of my first degree in Industrial & Production Engineering from Bangalore University from the impact of my intensive one year full credit MBA program completed a decade later at the University of Pittsburgh. Nor can I tease out the influence of Bauhaus inspired designerly skills introduced to me 32 years ago at the Eames conceptualized National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad or the eye-opening experience at the Institute of Design in Chicago (the old New Bauhaus) where business and design came together in a rigorous methodology based on contextual and user understanding as opposed to the classical design studio approach of NID.

Add to this the past decade of research using design ethnography methods to grasp the nature and functioning of the informal economy from the perspective of their financial management behaviour, often in the development context, and you’ll find I’m as unable to pick a discipline as a toddler asked to pick a flavour in Baskin-Robbins.

Approaching the challenge of situating my work from the lens of transdisciplinarity* offers me a way out of my quandary. As Czarniawska (2008) said, for me, this opens up a whole new perspective** and a dramatic change in metaphors.


* – there’s two common meanings, and I’ll leave my exploration of this for another post –

** I named my blog Perspective in 2005, I’m not going to open a new one

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Infrastructures of inclusion and informality: who drives the design of sociotechnical systems?

A recent Debate (Development and Change, Vol 52, No. 4) on the infrastructures of inclusion, informality and the social contract expands the notion of infrastructure beyond the tangible and the technological, to the systemic and economic, as well as societal structures and processes that are intended to facilitate inclusion. As Kate Meagher says in her introduction to the Debate (Meagher, 2021) the “will to include” has become paramount, and the recent global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters of economic inclusion more critical than ever.

The Debate situates the discourse within three overlapping spheres – Inclusion, Informality, and Infrastructure – and the articles “examine the specific processes through which these inclusive connections engage with informal actors, focusing on how they work and for whom” (Meagher, 2021). Reading them carefully has opened my eyes to the dark side of digitalization as the panacea for the developing world’s ills. It also raises the question of how these socio-technical systems (STS) were conceptualized and designed in the first place.

For example, Ruth Castel-Branco’s article explores:

“…the contentious politics at the interface of digital technologies and cash transfer administration in Mozambique. It combines ethnographic research conducted between 2016 and 2018 with semi-structured interviews in 2020 to trace how state technocrats, local leaders, community volunteers and cash transfer recipients have sought to claw back power from digital control.” (Castel-Branco, 2021)

While Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino observe:

“…within a development context, [digital] platforms do not operate in a political or historical void. They depend on other actors to fund, facilitate and frame their activities. Thus, our article situates platforms within a wider discussion of policy paradigms. Other powerful actors, such as large donors, government bodies, or large corporate partners in the case of agriculture, can pressure the platform operator to curate the market in ways that accommodate and reflect their own requirements, interests and theories of development.” (Mann and Iazzolino, 2021)

How well these markets are curated to benefit the poor, is a human centered design question that may never have been raised throughout the product development process. These authors have taken an infrastructural lens to “decipher the distributive and governance implications of the complex institutional, financial and digital linkages” of inclusion “in the circuits of contemporary market economies (Meagher, 2021). That is, they are analysing aspects of the impact of a designed STS from a variety of socio-political and economic development angles that designers and developers are rarely asked to consider in the course of their work.

Scandinavian design approaches that seek to emphasize the empowerment of the end-users of digital technology trace their legacy of political activism to their roots in the worker empowerment efforts in the 1970s. Taking sides on the behalf of the more vulnerable group of stakeholders, giving them a voice in the design process, incorporating their needs for improving their working conditions and building tools to enhance their skills and capacities are all facets of this design tradition’s long legacy of democratizing innovation.

Yet, as these articles collected together in this Debate show, design and designers have little role to play in the actual outcomes and implementation of their work which seeks to include the economically excluded. Karasti (2014) brings up aspects of this issue in her comprehensive review on infrastructing, where she notes that sometimes the emphasis is far too much on the technological side and not enough on the social side. I share an extensive quote here:

This shift, in broadening the focus from mere technology to its embedding context of practice, inevitably (re)calls for paying attention to the deeply socio-technical nature of infrastructuring. In STS tradition, this is premised in the idea of the mutual constitution/shaping (“imbrication,” Star, 2002) of the social and the technological.

This mutuality is contextually embedded, (i.e., technologies are seen as socially situated). It directs researchers to pay attention to the interdependent and inextricably linked relationships between the social and the technical without making a priori judgments about the relative importance of either or forcing separation between them.

In current PD literature, however, the social seems occasionally stripped away from the notion of infrastructuring. We see this both in approaches that aim to develop method support for infrastructuring but confine themselves to technology design, and in the work that employs additional user concepts that—while allowing for more nuanced analyses of the user population—run the risk of reducing the notion of infrastructuring to mere technological aspects. (Karasti, 2014)

Sociotechnical systems (STS) have increasingly been looked to in development to provide the linkages and connectivity for such economic inclusion.  At which stage of the product development process are the questions asked about the way these systems economically include or exclude the informal actors who are more than just the users of such tools and may depend on them for their livelihoods ?


Karasti, H. (2014, October). Infrastructuring in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers-Volume 1 (pp. 141-150).

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Is it still design that we’re doing or is it simply using the designer’s toolkit?

It was sometime in the Spring of 2002 that I was looking for a metaphorical space that would accommodate me – an engineer, an MBA, with graduate product design education and the sensibilities and eye of a designer.

I’d spent the year on a Heinz Foundation Fellowship after my MBA to train with Dr Chris Capelli, an MD/PhD, then the Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Tech Transfer program. As a Katz Tech Fellow, I was his intern, and he never hesitated to teach me about the finer points of licensing agreement negotiations for patents, or how to evaluate the commercialization potential of a novel innovation from a university lab.

It was here that I’d begun experiencing dimly the cross currents when one is in a university engineering lab looking at a scientist’s prototype of an innovative ultrasound scanner, tasked with envisioning its entire future journey through product development into the market. All so that I could write up the evaluation and recommend that the University invest in its patent costs. My fellowship was due to end in a few months and I was looking for my next position.

Surely, there was a space where manufacturing and production engineering, product and industrial design, and strategies for new market development could come together for me?

It was then that I stumbled across an interview of Larry Keeley of Doblin talking about the intersection of human centered design and business, and the Institute of Design in Chicago. Back then, the disciplinary strand I was intrigued by was called Design Planning. Luis Arnal’s personal website had the only lucid explication of Design Planning I’d come across and it captured my imagination. It’s also the deeper, broader, richer version of what passes for design thinking these days – its a strategic approach for the fuzzy front end of corporate innovation and transformation that incorporates user research, usually exploratory, and a structured planning approach to address complexity.

This new field also seemed to promise that mythical space where engineering, design, and business overlap. I flew to Chicago thinking I’d just have to suck it up and see if I needed to invest in another Master’s degree right after completing my MBA, if I wanted to wholly nurture the sparks I’d experienced in UPitt’s Tech Transfer Office. The experience of visiting the Institute of Design in early 2002 is worth a blogpost in its own right so I’ll save the story for another day. The bottomline is that I ended up starting work in August 2002 as the Director, Graduate Admissions, head of the department of everything related to students from awareness creation through to graduation.

In the three years I was there, reporting each semester’s performance to a Board of Trustees that included Don Norman, Sam Farber, Larry Keeley, Sam Pitroda, Jim Hackett, as well as harassing faculty to rapidly facilitate my ability to communicate the programs and their benefits, as well as the school’s philosophy of design, not to mention taking their classes in the evening, I received an education that no paper diploma can fully describe or capture. I planned John Heskett’s three city book tour for Toothpicks and Logos as a recruiting event. I got to hang out with everyone, tbh. But this is nostalgic derails.

The point I want to make in this writing is to reflect on the discipline of design once its capacities expand beyond the traditional artefacts and commercial objectives that originally gave birth to industrial design, particularly in the post WW2 productivity boom era of the United States.

This blogpost is a setting of perspective, as I tried to trace how I came to push the boundaries of the applicability of design research methods for understanding household financial behaviour in rural low income locations in the ASEAN and South Asia from the perspective of informing the design of business models and payment plans for irregular incomes, first articulated as a letter of intent for a Small Grant competition in August 2008.

The global financial crisis of 2008 is referenced in the literature of design, particularly the subdisciplinary strands of participatory approaches and cocreation, as the turning point in the global North for the expansion of the capacities of design beyond commercial objectives to more complex, societal challenges (Vaughan, 2017; Anderson et al. 2014, among others). As an innovator in this space of conducting design driven research for non traditional design outcomes – mine, at that point in time, was a conceptual design of a payment plan for a shared asset or resource for a community – I find myself reflecting on this massive transformation of the discipline and study of design, drawing from both the literature I’m reading and my own recollections and lived experience.

More questions than answers

Is it still design if the outcomes push the boundaries that gave birth to the discipline? Koskinen (2016) attempts to answer this from the point of view of aesthetics, that which used to define the designer’s education and skills building at the start of their learning journey. In many programmes around the world, the portfolio or extensive tests are used to evaluate the applicants’ ‘eye’ – something I’ll have to write about another day – what happens to this legacy as design itself redesigns itself?

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Magic, rhythm, and flow

Today has been set aside to read a book written by the Oxford professor of Archeology, Chris Gosden, called the History of Magic. My thoughts on the book will remain unwritten until I am able to do justice to a book review. In the meantime, I want to capture, in words, the inherent magic I am feeling, still under the surface. The words which will give song to this sensing, are not yet formed. But the rhythm of the keyboard offers me hints of future music, now beginning to be discerned, faintly.

In turbulent times, attempting to live nimbly and flexibly, responsive to air currents and trends, like an untethered hot air balloon, could inadvertently become more destabilizing than empowering. The rapidity of shifts in direction, due to the increased volatility of changes – rate of change, direction of change, even factors of change – meant that one could not conceive of oneself as “dancing in between” without being blown off course, to mix my metaphors with impunity.

One cannot even maintain dynamic equilibrium – the effort and resources required far outweigh any benefits –  in the swirling ever changing flows of a storm. One will never arrive at a stable state of feeling grounded or centered. Instead, the goal should be to continue maintenance of stability of orientation – a sense of direction that does not change hither and yon in response to the fluctuations in flows and currents.

Antony Gormley’s sculpture

Orientation, then, becomes the key to systems stability, rather than equilibrium. Volatility of conditions imply moving in and out of balance, in an effort to navigate through the turbulence. Focusing on equilibrium is a distraction. Were we able to arrive at our destination? I wonder then, if the concept of being grounded in such conditions then implies standing steadily in turbulent waters, able to walk through them, or whether stability is a point to point goal in the direction of movement akin to stepping stones in a raging river?

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